Due to the mechanization of life, traditional arts and crafts are fading away. There was a time when accomplishments like sewing, embroidery, crocheting or lace making, were assets in any girl of marriageable age. It enhanced her value as a homemaker.
Today, “Time” is one commodity, which no one seems to have – neither the harried housewife nor the office-goer who must juggle her time between job and domestic chores. Besides, returns for hours of intricate work are meagre.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised to meet an old lady of 82, in the Midlands, who was eager to pass on her skills at lace making, before she departed this earth. However, her students were in their sixties and seventies, their vision not so good, nor their fingers as nimble as they used to be. But what they lacked in dexterity was compensated by their enthusiasm. It was not only an opportunity to learn, but a time for socializing and camaraderie.
I had never seen bobbin lace made in India, (though one of the ladies said it had been introduced by the Colonial wives) and was intrigued by the skill and patience that went into its creation.
Bobbin lace or Pillow lace differs from other kinds of lace because multiple bobbins of thread are used to create the gossamer patterns. Bobbins used can vary from 30 to 1200, depending on the skill of the lace maker, and the intricacy of the design. Bobbins can be simple wooden ones or fancy pieces with coloured beads and decorations. Some of these are very expensive, and have become collector’s items.
A circular pillow stuffed with straw or polystrene is used as a support. In Europe, rectangular shapes are used. The pillow has to be properly “dressed” before work can begin, meaning that the surface must be smooth and creaseless. Another piece of material is spread over the lower half of the pillow, over which the bobbins rest.
A paper pattern is spread over the pillow, and the outline of the design pinned down to its surface with multiple pins. The loose ends of the threads on the bobbins are hooked around selected pins. Then by plaiting, twisting, turning over or under, backwards or forwards, one can produce the most intricate patterns. “Throwing the bobbins” as this procedure is called, is an art acquired through practice. It is time- consuming and cannot be rushed. Carelessness could lead to a tangled mess of threads, creating frustration rather than relaxation. It could take almost three hours to make an inch of lace.
The thread used is mostly white or off-white cotton or linen. Coloured threads may be used, provided the colours don’t run. Silk or metal threads have also been tried.
Bobbin lace first originated in Italy in the 15th century. It was from Venice and Milan that the art spread to Germany in the 16th century. It also spread to Great Marlow in England, at the same time, where it flourished for three hundred years. It took almost a century to spread to other areas.
Because the pins were very expensive, lace making was popular only among the rich and upper classes. But poor, resourceful women used fish bones instead of pins. The expression “pin money” is probably derived from the custom of giving marriageable girls money, so they could buy pins as part of their dowry, to enable them to make lace.
Pattern books on lace making were first printed in Zurich in 1561. The intricacies of knotting techniques were graphically explained. They were available only in the German language. Though the author of this book was a woman, she could not write under her name, but only use her initials, as women held such a low place in society. Gradually, special books were printed for the Nobility and Royalty, while simple instructions were available to the common people.
Italy, France and East Belgium (Flanders) became famous centres of lace making. This provided a source of income to many women who were house-bound. Lace was used to decorate clothes, cuffs, scarves (mantillas), and even on the edges of socks. Men loved to wear lace-trimmed stockings. Lace was also used for household linen and church accessories. Certain garments used by the clergy were also trimmed with lace.
Nuns were the first to recognize it as a good source of income, and labour was cheaply obtained from the orphans and children in their care. It was certainly a profitable industry, and “Convent lace” became famous all over Europe.
In France, Louis XIV promoted lace making, by heavily subsidizing the industry. He even prohibited the import of lace from other countries.
In the Lauterbrunnen valley of Switzerland, I met another old and experienced teacher who is desperately trying to keep the art alive. She works out of a small room cluttered with her paraphernalia, and samples of intricate lace.
“Interest in bobbin lace is fast dying out,” she laments, “The advent of machines has sounded the death knell for handmade lace. And yet, this art flourished in Lauterbrunnen for three centuries starting from 1669. A pastor was responsible for turning it into a cottage industry, seeing the poverty of his parishioners. In 1830 special courses were started, and many joined because they could earn 30 cents per hour of work. All the patterns were original and intricate. Our lace was as renowned for workmanship as that produced in Brussels and Saxony.”
She showed me samples incorporating oak leaves, acorns and flowers in the designs. She even gave me a pair of wooden bobbins as a souvenir.
Patterns have varied over the centuries. During the Renaissance, geometrical designs and symmetrical patterns were popular. But in 17th and 18th centuries, under Baroque influence, they became more decorative, with intricate patterns of leaves and flowers. The most admired patterns were “English Point” a six- sided mesh, the Machelin and Valenciennes.
The end of hand-made lace began in 1820, when John Levers invented the Levers machine. The machine combined bobbin techniques with weaving techniques, and churned out lace in bulk. After 1920, machines took over completely. Socio-economic changes after World War I put an end to lace-making as a craft.
The art of Bobbin lace is in its last throes. In the few old lace-making centres like Bruges, Brussels, Neuchatel and Lauterbrunnen, one can buy samples of the lace at exorbitant prices.
Because a few old “kloppel” makers refuse to let it die, and are eager to pass on their skills to a reluctant younger generation, Bobbin lace may yet survive as an amateur art!